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Joseph F. Rice School of Law

U.S. Supreme Court Cases

Holdings and case summaries of landmark Supreme Court cases that have impacted laws affecting children are provided below with links to the cases in full.

Child Protection and Permanency

DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dep’t of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989). Failure by state agency to prevent child abuse by a custodial parent does not violate the child's 14th Amendment right to liberty when the state did not create the danger or increase the risk of abuse. 

Smith v. Organization of Foster Care Families, 431 US 816 (1977).  Removal procedures did not violate foster parent’s 14th Amendment Due Process and Equal Protection rights. The ruling contains an analysis of the rights of natural parents balanced against the rights of foster parents, as well as a comprehensive discussion of foster care conditions.

Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30 (1989). The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) governs child custody proceedings, including adoptions, of Indian children, and tribal courts have jurisdiction over state courts regardless of the child's birth location if the child or the natural parents resided on a reservation.

Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, 570 U.S. ___ (2013). Several provisions of ICWA do not apply to biological Indian fathers who never had physical custody of Indian child under state law. Thus, since child was born out of wedlock, ICWA provisions requiring active efforts to prevent the breakup of an Indian family and requiring evidence that continued custody would seriously harm child, did not bar termination of parental rights of unwed biological father who never had physical custody of Indian child.

Lassiter v. Department of Social Services, 452 U.S. 18 (1981). Indigent parents do not have a constitutional right to appointed counsel at termination of parental rights hearing, but the court should consider appointment on a case-by-case basis.

Santosky v. Kramer, 455 US 745 (1982).  The grounds for termination of parental rights must be proven by clear and convincing evidence. 

Criminal Investigation and Prosecution of Child Abuse

Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62 (1991). In this federal habeas corpus appeal, the defendant argued that evidence of battered child syndrome was not relevant and therefore admission of such evidence violated the Due Process Clause of the Constitution. The Court held that such evidence was relevant and therefore the court did not address the constitutional issue. In explaining why battered child syndrome evidence is relevant, the Court stated: “[E]vidence demonstrating battered child syndrome helps to prove that the child died at the hands of another and not by falling off a couch, for example; it also tends to establish that the ‘other,’ whoever it may be, inflicted the injuries intentionally. When offered to show that certain injuries are a product of child abuse, rather than accident, evidence of prior injuries is relevant even though it does not purport to prove the identity of the person who might have inflicted those injuries.” The Court found that, since the prosecution was required to prove an intentional act, evidence of battered child syndrome was relevant to prove intent even though the state did not prove the identity of the person who inflicted the prior injuries. The Court also rejected the argument that accident must be alleged by the defense before battered child syndrome evidence is admissible. Because the prosecution is required to prove intent as an element of its case in chief, the Court held such evidence was relevant to help prove an intentional, rather than accidental, act occurred.

Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Court held the Federal Rules of Evidence and not Frye provided the standard for admission of expert scientific testimony in federal court. The Court explained that a trial court faced with a proffer of expert scientific testimony under Rule 702 FRE must make a preliminary assessment of whether the testimony’s underlying reasoning or methodology is scientifically valid and can properly be applied to the facts at issue. The Court set forth a number of factors for the trial court to consider: whether the theory or technique has been tested; whether the theory or technique has been subjected to peer review and publication; the known or potential error rate for a particular technique; and the existence and maintenance of controlling the technique’s operation. Those factors have subsequently been referred to as the “Daubert factors”.

Kumho Tire Co. Ltd. V. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137 (1999). Court held that the Daubert (see summary of Daubert below) factors may apply to the testimony of engineers and other experts who are not scientists. The Court’s opinion instructed that the Daubert factors do not constitute a definitive checklist for consideration of admission of an expert’s testimony and further instructed that the Daubert analysis of Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence is a flexible one.

Giles v. California, 554 U.S. 353 (2008). Defendant convicted of murder where prosecution introduced statements made by murder victim to police officer responding to domestic violence call. The Court held the theory of forfeiture by wrongdoing is not an exception to the Six Amendment’s confrontation requirement where there was no evidence that the defendant intended to prevent the victim from testifying.

Davis v. Washington, 547 U.S. 813 (2006). Court held that admission of recording of victim’s 911 call did not violated defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation because the conversation between domestic violence victim and 911 operator was not testimonial. The Court held in Hammond that domestic violence victim’s statement to police at the scene of the reported domestic violence was testimonial and admission of victim’s statement to police absent victim’s presence at trial violated defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation.

Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004). Court held admission of defendant’s wife to police that defendant’s stabbing was not in self-defense violated defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation where wife did not testify at trail due to the state’s marital privilege. The Court overruled Ohio v. Roberts, 448 U.S. 56 (1980) and set forth a method to analyze confrontation clause issues. Decide if a statement is testimonial. If a statement is not testimonial, no further confrontation clause analysis is necessary. If a statement is testimonial, the statement may be admitted only when: the witness testifies; or when the witness is not available to testify and the witness has been subject to cross-examination at a prior time or an exception to the confrontation clause applies (for example, the dying declaration exception).

Idaho V. Wright, 497 U.S. 805 (1990). Court held that admission of child’s hearsay statements (statements made to child’s pediatrician) violated defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation.  

Smith v. Doe, 538 U.S. 84 (2003). Court rejected respondents’ claim that the requirement that the Alaska Sex Offender Registration Act which required them to register as sex offenders violated the ex post facto clause of the Constitution where they were convicted of the predicate sex offenses before the act was passed. The Court relied on its decision in Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346 (1997) and found that the legislature intended to create a civil, non-punitive regime, not subject to the ex post facto prohibition.

Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346 (1997). Court upheld Kansas’ sexually violent predator statute against challenge that the statute violated the ex post facto and double jeopardy prohibitions of the Constitution.

Juvenile Justice

Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966). A juvenile court does not have unlimited parens patriae power and is not entitled to act with “procedural arbitrariness.” A juvenile facing waiver to adult court must be provided the basic requirements of due process, including a hearing, effective assistance of counsel, and a statement of reasons for the decision. The Court also provided eight determinative factors to be considered by the judge in deciding whether the juvenile court’s jurisdiction over the offense will be waived.

In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967). In hearings that could result in commitment to an institution, juveniles must be afforded many of the same due process rights as adults in criminal cases, including the right to timely and adequate notice of the charges, the right to a full hearing on the merits of the case, the right to counsel, the right against self-incrimination, and the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. 

 McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528 (1971). The Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment does not guarantee the right to a jury trial in a juvenile court delinquency proceeding.

Breed v. Jones, 421 U.S. 519 (1975). The Double Jeopardy Clause of the 5th Amendment prevents a juvenile who has been adjudicated delinquent in the juvenile court from subsequently being tried in adult court for the same offense.

Fare v. Michael C., 442 U.S. 707 (1979). Factors to be considered under the “totality of circumstances” when determining whether a confession was voluntarily and knowingly given include “evaluation of the juvenile’s age, experience, education, background, and intelligence, and into whether he has the capacity to understand the warnings given him, the nature of his Fifth Amendment rights, and the consequences of waiving those rights.”

J.D. B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (2011). Age is relevant when determining whether an individual is in custody for Miranda purposes.

Schall v. Martin, 467 U.S. 253 (1984). Preventative detention of juveniles is allowable under certain circumstances.

T.L.O. v. New Jersey, 469 U.S. 325 (1985). The 4th Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures applies to searches by public school officials. Students’ legitimate expectations of privacy must be balanced against the school’s equally legitimate need to maintain an educational environment, so school officials are not required to obtain a warrant or have probable cause that a crime occurred before searching a student, as long as the search is reasonable under the circumstances.

Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005). The 8th and 14th Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty for crimes committed while under the age of 18.

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010). The 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide offense.

Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012). The 8th Amendment prohibits sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole for homicide crimes, where such a sentence is the only option.

Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. ___ (2016). Miller v. Alabama’s prohibition on life without parole for juveniles must be applied retroactively. States may remedy Miller violations by re-sentencing or offering parole to inmates sentenced to life as juveniles.


In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970). Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard required for delinquency adjudications.



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